It’s hard to avoid hearing someone talk about the benefits of being mindful these days. But as for just what mindful is and what’s beneficial about it — those are often not so easily answered. A new study, however, finds at least one concrete benefit of being mindful: it may make you less sensitive to pain.
“Mindfulness is related to being aware of the present moment without too much emotional reaction or judgment,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. “We now know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people seemingly feel less pain.”
To get to this conclusion, Zeidan and his colleagues analyzed data obtained from a study published in 2015 that compared mindfulness meditation to placebo analgesia. In this follow-up study, Zeidan sought to determine if mindfulness, an individual’s innate or natural level of mindfulness, was associated with lower pain sensitivity, and to identify what brain mechanisms were involved.
They basically cooked some volunteers to see how they reacted. More specifically, 76 healthy volunteers who had never meditated first completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, a reliable clinical measurement of mindfulness, to determine their baseline levels. Then, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, they were administered painful heat stimulation up to 120°F.
Those with higher levels of mindfulness experienced less pain. The MRI showed that higher mindfulness was associated with greater deactivation of a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex, a central neural node of the default mode network. Further, in those that reported higher pain, there was greater activation of this critically important brain region.
The default mode network extends from the posterior cingulate cortex to the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. These two brain regions continuously feed information back and forth. This network is associated with processing feelings of self and mind wandering, Zeidan said.
“As soon as you start performing a task, the connection between these two brain regions in the default mode network disengages and the brain allocates information and processes to other neural areas,” he said.
“Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of task, such as reading or writing. Default mode network is reactivated whenever the individual stops performing a task and reverts to self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions. The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports.”
The study provided novel information that showed people with higher mindfulness ratings had less activation in the central nodes of the default network and experienced less pain. Those with lower mindfulness ratings had greater activation of this part of the brain and also felt more pain, Zeidan said.
“Now we have some new ammunition to target this brain region in the development of effective pain therapies. Importantly this work shows that we should consider one’s level of mindfulness when calculating why and how one feels less or more pain,” Zeidan said. “Based on our earlier research, we know we can increase mindfulness through relatively short periods of mindfulness meditation training, so this may prove to be an effective way to provide pain relief for the millions of people suffering from chronic pain.”
The study is an article in press, published ahead-of-print in the journal PAIN.